A Family Story With a Son on the Spectrum

2 minute read

“People think autistic people don’t have empathy, but that’s not true,” Sam (Keir Gilchrist) says in Netflix’s new family comedy Atypical. “Sometimes I can’t tell if someone’s upset, but once I know, I feel lots of empathy. Maybe even more than neurotypicals.”

That’s an apt summation of the strengths–and some of the weaknesses–of this charming eight-episode addition to the streaming service. Sam, whose difficulty picking up on social cues has deeply affected his family’s life, is also a loving and engaged part of his family’s life. Even so, his parents, played by Michael Rapaport and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and sister (Brigette Lundy-Paine) begin spinning away from one another with not unjustifiable selfishness.

Atypical doesn’t always trust the strength of its core narrative, as if its creators believe there needs to be some juicy inducement to get viewers to tune into an otherwise well-told family story. The most striking example comes in the form of Leigh’s exorcising her household stresses in an extramarital affair. The dullest is Rapaport’s attempt to bond with his son by helping nurse a crush on his therapist. Speechless, ABC’s remarkable sitcom about the pains and joys of a family touched by disability, proves that narrative twists like these aren’t necessary.

The heart of Atypical is its difficult-to-forget main character. Sam sits rigidly upright on the bus so as to avoid touching the seat back. He pulls a stranger’s ponytail at his sister’s track meet to get it to stop shaking in his face. And he has an unusual coping mechanism in times of stress: he thinks about Antarctica, and how chilly and remote it is there. Gilchrist, previously seen as Toni Collette’s son on Showtime’s United States of Tara, conveys Sam’s gifts and challenges masterfully.

High school–with its constant interpersonal sparks–is as far from the South Pole as it gets. And Atypical, in quieter moments, shows how a group of people band together to get one perceptive, thoughtful kid through.

Atypical is streaming on Netflix now

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com